Unity on Yom Ha’Atzmaut

Unity on Yom Ha’Atzmaut

This year, Teaneck will mark the day differently

Israel’s supporters looked to the sky last year in Teaneck.
Israel’s supporters looked to the sky last year in Teaneck.

I don’t think anybody wants to celebrate Yom Ha’Atzmaut” — Israel’s Independence Day — or commemorate Yom Ha’Zikaron” — its Remembrance Day, the day before Yom Ha’Atzmaut — “on their own this year,” Karen Orgen of Teaneck said.

Ms. Orgen is one of the organizers of the Yom Ha’Atzmaut Experience, the community-wide commemoration and celebration taking place next week in Teaneck. (She’s also an elected member of Teaneck’s township council, but she’s working on the program in her personal capacity.) The program is being sponsored by a group of more than 40 local synagogues, Jewish schools, organizations, and businesses. (See below.)

Ms. Orgen also was involved in planning last year’s Yom Ha’Atzmaut Experience. The community-wide program was conceived of last year as “a celebration of Israel’s 75th anniversary, which was very important to commemorate,” she said. She credits Rabbi Chaim Strauchler of Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael as the “driving force” behind the program. Ms. Orgen is a member of Rinat and of the Teaneck Jewish Center. Both are Orthodox shuls and event sponsors.

“Rabbi Strauchler had the idea to create an event that brought the entire community together,” Yehuda Kohn, another member of both Rinat and the event committee, said. “I thought it was a very special project because it was designed to be communal. And we had a successful event last year, we had about 2500 people.”

Karen Orgen with her daughter, Allie.

“We kind of did a postmortem after last Yom Ha’Atzmaut and Yom Ha’Zikaron and decided we were going to do it again,” Ms. Orgen continued. Then October 7 happened. “And the tone changed and the importance of the event changed,” Ms. Orgen said.

“I think the one good thing that has come out of October 7 is this feeling of unity and people leaning on each other and coming together like we haven’t before,” she continued. “And so what this will give the community this year is a place to go to mourn together and then to celebrate together.

“There are a lot of feelings that people have that they don’t know what to do with, but the one good that has come out of everything is we really do come together well as a community now. Personally, I don’t know what else I would do the night of Yom Ha’Zikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut this year. I want to be with a lot of people who are like minded, who are feeling the same things that we’re all feeling.”

The theme of this year’s event is achdut — unity.

Rabbi Chaim Stauchler

The program will start with a kumzitz featuring local musicians, Rabbi Strauchler said. “Between each song, we’ll screen profiles of some of Israel’s soldiers who have fallen in battle, as they are broadcast on Israeli television throughout Israel’s Remembrance Day,” but in English. The kumzitz will end with Keyl Malei Rachamim, a memorial prayer, for Israel’s fallen soldiers, and prayers for soldiers and for the hostages, although Rabbi Strauchler hopes the hostages are freed before then and this prayer is not necessary. The program will continue with mincha and maariv, “a video message from Bergen County to Israel reflecting on events of these past seven months and our love for the people of Israel,” and an aerial light show and dancing to celebrate Yom Ha’Atzmaut.

Rabbi Strauchler stressed that marking these days is particularly vital this year. “With an ongoing war in Israel and growing antisemitism around the world, the importance of Yom Ha’Zikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut in our lives only grows,” he said. “We recognize how interconnected we all are. We see the importance of achdut within Israel and between Israel and Jews worldwide. The opportunity to come together and celebrate Zionism and Israel is especially important right now.”

The program’s tone will also be different from last year’s, Rabbi Strauchler said. “Yom Ha’Zikaron will be different for everyone. It will be much more intense since our hurt is so much more intense.”

The celebration of Israel also will be more intense, he continued. The world can’t allow Hamas to cross a border, murder 1200 people, and then hide in a civilian population. “In nobly fighting a terror that demeans all that is decent, Israel is a beacon of light for all nations,” Rabbi Strauchler said. “While the misguided or malicious may deny these truths, Israel’s cause is a defense of all humanity.

Eric Segal

“While we mourn the deaths of innocents on all sides, we know that Israel’s fight is the fight for justice and human dignity. The program will display our unwavering support for the State of Israel, provide an outlet for our Zionism, and unify our community in standing against the rise of anti-Semitism locally and around the world.”

Rabbi Steven Sirbu leads Teaneck’s Temple Emeth, a Reform shul and another event sponsor. Since October 7, Temple Emeth has been working to “foster bonds of community and solidarity with the greater Jewish community,” Rabbi Sirbu said. He sees the Yom Ha’Atzmaut Experience as a way to demonstrate both “the pride we take in Israel” and “the way our support of Israel can bring us together in a difficult time.”

Eric Segal is another member of the event committee. He is a member of Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom, a Conservative shul that is another of the sponsoring synagogues, and is the long-time chair of the shul’s Ayin l’Tzion committee, which oversees its Israel-related programming.

For more than 25 years, Beth Sholom has held a program that began on Yom Ha’Zikaron with an observance of the day, Mr. Segal said. As it got dark, signaling a new day on the Jewish calendar, the program would transition, with a festive maariv service, into a Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebration. This year, the synagogue decided to join the community-wide event instead, because “we value participation in the wider Jewish community,” he said.

Last year’s celebration was less tinged with grief than this year’s is likely to be.

And that is especially true now, Mr. Segal continued. “I think it’s very important for the larger Jewish community to make a statement that we stand with the people and the State of Israel and with the Jewish people in support of Israel. This is important for all of us, for the surrounding community, and for people in Israel.

“I think as a core value of Beth Sholom, we want to make that statement, as we have for 25 years, and to particularly make it this year within a larger community.”

Mr. Segal enjoyed the chance to work with members of the broader Jewish community on the event. He and Whitney Blom, Beth Sholom’s engagement director, shared their ideas at committee meetings, and he feels they were real “participants in this endeavor.”

“This is a unique year,” Mr. Segal concluded. “Israel has also modified how it will observe these days this year. But the intention of the program is to show our concern. That includes our concern for the hostages and our hope that the soldiers will return home safely and soon.”

Yehuda Kohn

Mr. Kohn feels the program is important for similar reasons. Yom Ha’Zikaron is not just a memorial day for fallen soldiers, he said, it’s also become a day to commemorate victims of terror, and of course, since October 7, the number of victims has increased dramatically. And it’s very close to home for many local people; 19-year-old Edan Alexander, who grew up in Tenafly, was kidnapped in the attack, and “I personally have best friends in common with Hersch Goldberg-Polin,” Mr. Kohn said.

So the ability to come together as a community is important, he continued. “And I mean community in the broadest sense possible,” he said. “Certainly all the different observance levels, that goes without saying, but it should really go further, to hopefully have people come who are friends of Israel who happen to not be Jewish. And we’re reaching out to encourage people like that to attend as well.”

Mr. Kohn has close family connections in Israel that allow him to know “what’s really going on there, because I don’t have to rely on secondhand news reports,” he said. “I know people who are literally in all the different corners — whether they’re living there day to day, or have been in Gaza and seen firsthand.” So it’s clear to him that “while nobody is perfect, we’re being trashed now.

“What’s happening now in these colleges would have been literally unimaginable even a month ago, and now it’s routine. So I think that being able to answer back in a respectful way, to show that we are united, that there are a lot of people who care, that we are here to recognize the people we’ve lost, the soldiers who have gotten us this far, not just in the immediate conflict but in all the years past, and all the people who have been victims of terror, and then to be able, in the most Jewish of ways, to turn the corner and to celebrate the results of all of those sacrifices, is important.

Whitney Blom

“We need to show support because we see how quickly that support has eroded for so many people, and people who are not in the know just get swept up in it. This is an opportunity to combat it in a beautiful way.”

The program will be outdoors, and it will be visible. “We made a conscious decision very early on in the planning, both last year and this year, to do it outside because we felt it was important to be able to show that we’re coming together, and for people to be able to see that,” Mr. Kohn said.

Since the event will be highly visible, security was a concern, so the committee worked closely with the police department and Community Security Service, an organization that trains volunteers to protect synagogues and other Jewish institutions. “The Teaneck Police Department and CSS have gone above and beyond to evaluate every situation, to figure out exactly what protocols need to be put in place, and also to make sure that it’s not onerous for people,” Mr. Kohn said. “We want to make sure that it’s not hard for people to get in and out, and, if there are protesters, that we are prepared to handle things in a professional way.”

Mr. Kohn expects the program to be very meaningful and poignant. “I think coming together for this type of event is monumentally important and, honestly, easy,” he concluded. “It’s an opportunity to show in a very dignified but powerful way that we are one people, and to demonstrate that there are people that are very passionate about Israel and not afraid to come out and show it.”

What: The Yom Ha’Atzmaut Experience, a community-wide event commemorating Israel’s Remembrance Day and celebrating Israel’s Independence Day

When: On Monday, May 13, from 6 to 9 p.m.

Where: Teaneck

Cost: $5/person, $18/family

Register at: www.rinat.org/yhe to receive event location

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